Since their 2012 debut No Passion All Technique, the Detroit post-punk band Protomartyr have mastered the art of evoking place: the grinding Midwest humility of their hometown, as well as the x-rayed elucidation of America that comes with their vantage. Protomartyr—vocalist Joe Casey, guitarist Greg Ahee, drummer Alex Leonard, and bassist Scott Davidson—have become synonymous with caustic, impressionistic assemblages of politics and poetry, the literal and oblique.
The group’s sixth album, recorded at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas, is called Formal Growth In The Desert. And though frontman Joe Casey did have a humbling experience staring at awe-inspiring Sonoran rock formations and reckoning with his own smallness in the scheme of things – as recounted in the single “Elimination Dances” – the title is not necessarily a nod to the sandy expanses of the southwest. Detroit, too, is like a desert. “The desert is more of a metaphor or symbol,” Casey says, “of emotional deserts, or a place or time that seems to lack life.” The desert brings an existential awareness that is ultimately internal.
The “growth” came from a period of colossal transition for Casey, including the death of his mother. Now 45, Casey had lived in the family home in northwest Detroit all his life until 2021, when a surge of break-ins signaled that it was time to move out. As with all touring artists, the pandemic years also brought on other inner quandaries about the purpose and feasibility of a musician’s life.